Presidency could be in hands of women
Never underestimate a woman's influence, especially when it comes to her vote.
"Women's issues are everybody's issues," said freshman U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican. "Women will be motivated by how the economy affects their families, their lives, their future."
The economy undoubtedly will remain the biggest motivating factor for voters in the 2012 presidential election, experts say. Women zero in on financial stability, because they often juggle the family budget — whether married or single, mothers with small children or caregivers for aging parents.
Sara Grove, a political science professor at Shippensburg University who specializes in women's impact on elections, says it's critical for candidates to vie for the support of female voters. They've outnumbered men at the polls in every presidential election since 1980, she said.
In 2008, exit polling showed President Obama won 56 percent of the female vote and 49 percent of the male vote. With the economic downturn, Grove said, Obama's popularity with women has eroded. Forty-five percent of women approved of Obama's job performance in a national Gallup poll taken Nov. 28-Dec. 4, down from 51 percent during the same period in 2009, the end of his first year in office.
The question of how to restore economic growth "is not just another political debate," Obama said last week. "What's at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement."
The Republican candidate who wins Iowa's Jan. 3 caucus and early primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida historically secures the party's nomination — and that could be the one who appeals most to women, if women continue to outperform men in voting.
"We tend to carefully consider the whole person in our decision, which probably adds to the uncertainty in the polls," said Scott County, Iowa, resident Jeanita McNulty.
Trust is a factor among voters, said Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University.
"All voters, at the end of the day, vote based upon some conception of trust," she said. "It is just that some people trust party identification, some trust policy positions, some trust character. ... Most people say they make their decisions on issues, but we've seen data that show that people vote on how attractive the candidate is."
To gain the trust of women, Republican candidates are working to secure surrogates such as Ayotte — who said she endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney because of his business acumen — and community activists who see voters at grocery stores, school meetings, church or soccer games, Brown said.
"Those are the persuaders that women trust," she said.
Crystal McIntyre of Indianola, Iowa, an Army veteran and mother of six, said she'd like to persuade others to vote for Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
"I was never really active in the (election) process, but when you start to realize the importance your vote has on the direction of the country and the future of your children, you realize that you should participate," she said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the frontrunner in many polls, topped last week's Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, earning support from 25 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers. That put him 7 percentage points ahead of Paul, with 18 percent, and moved Romney into third place, with 16 percent.
Pollster Ann Selzer said the survey found only a small gap between genders.
"Men and women are just about on the same page, with maybe a 1- to 3-point spread," she said, but she noted that voters haven't locked in their preferences.
Some experts question whether Gingrich's two divorces and three marriages will matter to voters.
"I think that people have already looked at that and decided that will not be a factor in their decision," said Gwen Ecklund, chairwoman of the Iowa Federation of Republican Women. Divorce, she said, "is part of our culture."
McNulty said Gingrich's past, including an ethics violation for which he paid a $300,000 fine while in Congress, "is hard to overlook." Yet, it isn't the only reason she supports Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "I like his courage. ... He is not afraid to take a stand," she said.
Deb Foster, who operates a small furniture business with her son-in-law in Coggon, outside Cedar Rapids, said she will vote for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
"He has a worldview and understanding that none of the other candidates have," said Foster, who said she considers how her votes could affect her business and her family's future.
She said she thinks Santorum is "the most well-rounded, consistent candidate."
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll in August, but Brown noted that no woman has won an Iowa caucus — not Elizabeth Dole in 2000, whose husband won it in 1996, nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2008, endorsed by popular Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.
"Iowa has never elected either a female governor or a female U.S. senator," Brown said.
Bachmann's endorsement this week from conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly does little for her campaign, Grove said.
"It certainly solidifies her as a Christian, conservative, family-values candidate, but she already has those voters," she said.Additional Information:
At a glance
Statistics show more women than men registered and voted in November 2008:
Total registered voters: 146,311,000
Registered female voters: 78,069,000
Registered male voters: 68,242,000
Total reported voters in 2008 presidential election: 131,144,000
Women who reported voting: 70,415,000
Men who reported voting: 60,729,000
Source: U.S. Census Bureau